Saturday, May 1, 2010

Derby Day

In the 1973 Derby, Secretariat's times were faster every
quarter-mile, an unequaled achievement in Triple Crown races.

Today is the start of one of my favorite periods of the sports year — Triple Crown racing season.

At the most, this season will only last five weeks. The second jewel in the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, will be run two weeks from today. And, if today's winner also happens to win the Preakness, that will make the Belmont, which is three weeks after the Preakness, the "Test of the Champion" it is billed to be.

This afternoon, the first jewel in the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, will run for the 136th time. Ulysses S. Grant was president the first time the race was run at Churchill Downs, but I have seen no reports that he was in attendance.

Compared to modern Derbies, the time was positively pedestrian — 2:37.75 — but the distance was ¼ of a mile longer than it is now. When the Derby changed to a 1¼–mile distance, the times dropped to nearly the two–minute mark, setting the stage for the race's popular nickname, "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports."

And, for more than a century, the winners of the race have run it in about two minutes. (Here's a little trivia for you: Only one horse, Northern Dancer in 1964, has ever run the Derby in two minutes flat. Spend A Buck came close in 1985, with a time of 2:00.20. So did Decidedly in 1962 with a time of 2:00.40 and Proud Clarion in 1967 with a time of 2:00.60.)

On two occasions, the winner of the race has crossed the finish line in less than two minutes. The last time was in 2001, when Monarchos recorded a time of 1:59.97.

That would be the Derby record, were it not for the legendary Secretariat, whose time of 1:59.40 in 1973 may be the Derby's holy grail. Like Joe DiMaggio's remarkable hitting streak, it may stand forever.

I've always enjoyed horse racing. It is called the sport of kings, and it always struck me as a regal competition, long before I ever went to a race track. It has been many years since I last went to a track, but I still enjoy watching the Triple Crown races.

If you're planning to put down a wager on today's race, naturally, you would like to know who the winner will be. I'd like to have that information myself, but I'll have to wait, like everyone else, to see how it plays out.
  • Andrew Beyer, of the Washington Post, writes that Lookin At Lucky, the 3–1 morning–line favorite in the Louisville Courier–Journal, is the justifiable favorite, but he warns that many factors can influence the Derby.

    The weather, of course, will be one such factor, and, based on the prediction from NOAA, the temperature should be mild, but there is a 70% chance of rain. That could well mean a sloppy track. Consequently, I would recommend looking for a horse that has a good record on muddy tracks.

    That is likely to be an exercise in futility, though. Few, if any, of today's entries seem to have any experience running on muddy tracks. In fact, they have even less experience than might be expected. Rain canceled the early morning workouts today, which would have been their last chance to get a little experience running in the slop.

  • Some folks put a lot of stock in the jockey. Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News appears to be one of those. He makes the case for Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby last year (and also rode the winner at the Preakness). Borel is aboard Super Saver today, a 15–1 shot, but what the heck? Mine That Bird was an even longer longshot.

  • In what I presume passes for a consensus in a race that really seems to be up for grabs, Sports Illustrated's Gene Menez also favors Super Saver. He's not especially keen on Lookin At Lucky, though. "[T]here are others who provide better value," he writes.

  • Larry Stumes says, in the San Francisco Chronicle, that Sidney's Candy, a 5–1 pick in the morning line, can win the race.

  • Gary West told his readers in the Fort Worth Star–Telegram a few days ago that the draw for the post positions made this year's Derby unpredictable.
So who ya gonna believe?

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